January 14, 2016

How Accessibility Standards Enable Poor User Interfaces

I've been spending a lot of time recently on issues related to the accessibility of websites. This continues to be at or near the the top of queries I get regarding the Internet in general, and of Google in particular (because most queries on all Internet topics I receive tend to relate to Google, one way or another).

I've attempted to give some flavor of the frustrations people send me on these topics, including in some of my relatively recent postings, including among others:

UI Fail: How Our User Interfaces Help to Ruin Lives

The Three Letter Cure for Web Accessibility and Discrimination Problems

The observant reader might wonder ... how can this situation persist? Why aren't there accessibility standards for websites?

In fact, there are such standards.

But the irony is that by encouraging a "one size fits all" view of user interfaces -- typically with few or no user control options, such standards can provide an excuse for not making interfaces more customizable, more targeted to users with particular needs, and overall better than what the standards provide for.

So, to take one case, we have low font contrast -- you know, the dim gray letters on a gray background problem (at least when viewed with aging or otherwise imperfect eyes). This is one of the issues most commonly mentioned to me regarding Google products, e.g. in the new Google+ (where some text is distinctly dimmer and harder to read than in legacy G+).

Is Google just pulling these fonts and backgrounds out of a hat?

No, they're not.

In fact, when you discuss this issue with Google directly (and Google has reached out to me for such discussions on accessibility issues -- many thanks!) you will be told that the fonts and backgrounds in question all pass WCAG 2.0 guidelines.

Odds are you've never heard of WCAG -- the W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.

They come in three compliance levels, reminiscent of battery sizes: A, AA, and AAA.

Google asserts that (for example) the new G+ passes the compliance checkpoints for W3C WCAG 2.0 AA -- pretty much the end of the story from their standpoint.

And I have no reason to doubt that they do pass those compliance tests.

But is WCAG magical? A gift from the heavens? The last word in creating excellent user interfaces that play well with users of widely varying needs?

Of course not.

In fact, W3C WCAG is something of a Godzilla of standards, that hardly anybody really likes.

It's relatively big and complicated. Accessibility advocates often complain that it doesn't go far enough and doesn't provide for adequate customization by users.

Web services complain that it's unyielding and difficult to implement correctly.

And they're all correct.

It's a classic example of design by committee, resulting in a complex mess that doesn't serve anybody particularly well.

I'm just one guy sitting here alone in L.A. I can listen to frustrated users, I can compile their concerns, I can make suggestions.

But I can't fix any of this stuff by myself.

Yet we damned well better find a way to find and deploy realistic fixes. And soon. Because (among other things) an aging population demographically means ever more users with accessibility needs that are often not being met by today's user interfaces.

And as frustration turns to anger, the probabilities increase of government getting more directly involved in this area, with bureaucrats calling the shots. Oh goody.

We need to deal with this now, ourselves -- or government is going to address this complicated area with their usual delicate finesse, that is, the "bull in a china shop" approach.

Guess who will have to pick up the pieces afterwards?

Yeah, all of us.

And that's the truth.

Be seeing you.

I have consulted to Google, but I am not currently doing so -- my opinions expressed here are mine alone.

Posted by Lauren at January 14, 2016 01:20 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
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